Atitlan: on owning my own tourist


Tempest is the nearest thing to it, I imagine. This sort of whipping effect as when traveling 70 miles an hour over choppy sea on a small boat, or like the nausea of recovering from too much food. It's a weighted shifting of direction suddenly, where you are confronted with the last great stand of the person you were playing before all this started, and that no longer feels right.

But this time it's beautiful. I mean just literally surrounded by the most beautiful bounty of what the earth is capable of. Volcanoes jutting from a lush green forested lake, and waterfalls, and beautiful people dressing the way their grandparents did. Beautiful like the breeze you feel when you land somewhere new.

Take the security guard at lunch. Watching from a relatively dank comedero (Lucia's) which is a whole other story in itself, I see a stacked-solid-with-macho security guard nervously eying the drunk man's arm dangling from his poor, tattered body onto the mindless street of whizzing Tuk Tuks.

If you look harder you'll notice he is already missing a leg. I imagine that he's making up for it with the new leg he just tied on full of beer and corn whiskey. He's out cold laying on the side walk, face up, with the security guard approaching.

I've seen his type kicked to shit in my country. I'm not just saying this. Give a guy a gun and he turns into an asshole. But somehow here it's different. This big man with the enormous gun comes up to where the drunkard is sprawled out and tenderly rests the dangling arm securely on the drunk man's stomach.

I used to think I was from somewhere civilized.

There is a dark side as well, to all this beauty. Maybe dark is the wrong word. We can look at something for a very long time, and think we know it, but if the stuff inside us was formed by a different set of elements, we can never be sure if what we are seeing is true. And so there is a disconnect here, as well, that I am starting to realize might never be righted. I am starting to replace the need to connect, in the way I am used to, with a realization that many of these beautiful humans around me might not ever really see me, nor I them.

I am hearing my smart-ass friends back home asking me, 'So what's new?'. Touche', I tell them. Maybe it's just that here everything is so evident and gaping, or that these friends of mine who I love so much are so far away.

There is a new theme-park in Mexico organized around border crossings, in order to give American's an authentic taste of the adventure we miss out on what with so many laws protecting us. So they hire fake Coyotes and immigration vans, and they take the participants to a hot desert, and they let them out to successfully try crossing the 'border'.

Of course, no one is raped or murdered, and they are all given T-shirts at the end. I mention this here only because I paid a 'tour guide' a week ago to experience an authentic Mayan welcoming ceremony, and wondered about the theme-park aspect to what I was engaging in. We are tourists first, here. And although we came to the experience with all of the intention and respect that we have brought to any ceremony we have participated in, we were still being introduced to our shaman as tourists, and we were still on a tour.

All things being equal, the experience itself was powerful. It took place on the side of a mountain in a pire that had been used for hundreds of years for these kinds of ceremonies. The tour guide's grandfather had prayed there with his family, as had his grandfather.

On a base of sugar and incense, an assortment of hand dipped candles in organized colors were placed carefully and lit. We kneeled at either side of the shaman in a circle around the fire. I was east and my partner was west - our tour guide, who we also invited into the circle was south, and the shaman was north. She prayed feverishly in words I could only partially understand, but was not surprised by. She expressed our gratitude for our safe travels, and hope that our roads would continue to open before us and that we would be guided by the love of God and nature.

She stirred the burning sugar fire, and then would toss incense into the flaming concoction as she continued to pray rhythmically. The stirring of the fire seemed to have a similar effect in the air, and my arm hair stood on end during parts of the ceremony. Afterwards, looking at the ashes, our shaman said that it was clear that God was pleased and that she felt very optimistic about the success of the ceremony. We spoke a bit afterwards, and she invited us to stay with her if we intended to stay in the area.

She said she had a room she rents for tourists. Tourists.

We are still considering the invitation seriously, although I am not sure I understand fully what it meant. Like so many people from a land of so much opportunity, we are wanting to experience something authentic. In my vocabulary, being a 'tourist' is not something that lends itself to authenticity, but I am learning that I might not even know my own language.

I think I am being re-wired, and my definitions of things reworded for my own good, in order to allow these experiences I am having to happen as they will, and without judgment. This is my great struggle and learning right now, and I am looking forward to getting to the other side if what feels like a mountain to me. I also understand that it is my great privilege to be walking on this road, and am grateful.

A good friend told me once that we make the road by walking it, and at the time I thought it sounded smart. Today I realize that I am just now starting to really understand what she meant.